I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared as a mother for the insidious impacts of rape culture on my son. I was prepared for its impacts on my daughter. I knew all about them. I lived them. But, my son? A privileged white boy? I was prepared to counteract the privilege. I was prepared to make sure that my son didn’t become one of those who debased, devalued, dehumanized others. I wasn’t prepared for the twisted environment rape culture fosters to put my son in the position of being devalued and dehumanized and disregarded because he is male.
Starting in the beginning of the last school year my tween-aged son became the focus of the attentions of a tween-aged girl in his class. My son is small for his age, the next-to-smallest boy in his grade, and is still, even a year later, more interested in his Legos and Minecraft and science facts than he is in having a special “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.” In fact, last year he still wasn’t interested in that at all, which is totally developmentally normal.
The girl who focused her attentions on my son is physically developmentally in a different place than my son is. She is heavier and taller than he is, was taller than most of the boys in the class last year actually, and was clearly developing breasts, a narrower waist and wider hips. This is also developmentally normal.
When I attended a classroom event at the beginning of the school year one of the things I noticed in the classroom was the wide variance in physical development between the tween-age children in the class. Some of them, including my son, still looked like little kids. Others were beginning to look like the middle-schoolers they soon would be. My son fit into the former category. The girl, obviously, in the latter.
Several months into the school year I received a call to inform me that my son had been involved in an incident, but that since the boys’ story and the “little girls’” story didn’t match there would be no behavioral report. Please note that she, the principal, said “boys” and “little girls.” I was told that my son had talked about sex and male anatomy with the girl, which was reported by the girl and her best friend to the teacher. I was told that the little girls reported that my son told the girl something preposterous about what would happen to his body when he turned 21 (random and suspiciously unlikely). The school was not placing any blame, nor was anyone in trouble, I was told, they just wanted us to be aware.
My son knows what will happen to his body and knows what sex is, because we taught him. We use proper anatomical names to describe all body parts, including genitals. We read or gave him to read age-appropriate books about the subject starting when he was much younger. We also taught him that because different families have different beliefs about sex and sexuality that this was not a topic he should ever discuss at school. So, it was a surprising disappointment to me when I heard that my son had allegedly been talking about sex at school, and curiously unlikely that he had actually said what I was told he had said about what would happen to his body.
When I picked my son up from the after school program that afternoon I asked him what had happened that school day. He said that he had been sitting at the lunch table with three boys and one girl from his grade. One of the boys started to sing the “kissing song” (“…up in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g…”), but he was replacing kissing with sharing (“s-h-a-r-i-n-g”). My son said the boy told one of the other boys at the table that sharing meant sex. The girl, my son said, claimed not to have heard what the boy said sharing meant, and asked my son. My son told me that he told her that he didn’t know, but she kept asking.
He said that when they returned to the classroom the girl continued to ask him. He said she followed him around and wouldn’t leave him alone. He said he eventually told her that he did know, but he couldn’t tell her. He thought that would make her stop asking, but it didn’t. He said he didn’t know how to make her stop asking, so finally he told her it was sex.
This led to the girl sharing with my son what she had seen in a movie. I’m not going to share the details of what he told me, but suffice it to say that the only “movies” in which one can see what was described are pornographic movies. We monitor our childrens’ screen time. There is no television on school nights and they can’t watch shows or movies that we haven’t approved. They do not have unfettered access to the Internet. There is no way my son ever saw a movie in which what was described was shown.
And yet, I had been told by the school that the girl told the principal that my son told her about what was shown in that movie and what would happen to his body when he was grown. What I had been told he allegedly told her was based on what was described as having appeared in the movie, not on the factual information that I know my son was taught, because I was the one who gave him the book It’s Perfectly Normal to read the summer before. I was furious.
The principal had described the girls as “little girls” and I got the feeling that the girls were presumed innocent and my son was presumed guilty, because of gender alone. This is what rape culture does. Let me be very clear: it is developmentally normal for children to be curious about sex. Rape culture presents girls as innocent unless they’re not, and then it’s all their fault. Rape culture presents boys as always interested in sex, and always the pursuer, and even when they’re not stories are contorted to keep them in that little box.
In our efforts to ensure that boys who have a certain amount privilege in rape culture do not become perpetrators of criminal acts, please let’s not criminalize them. Please let’s acknowledge that there are variations of normal and that not all tween-aged children are interested in sex, and if they are they can be provided with appropriate education and guidance, but that it is not just the boys.
This wasn’t the only incident that occurred with my son last school year involving the girl. Eventually I asked that he be kept away from her in the classroom and instructed him to stay away from her in general. Her interest may have been innocent and perfectly normal, but in the eyes of rape culture my son would always be the pursuer, not the pursued, and that was the only solution I could provide to protect him.
And I sat down with my son and had a conversation with him in which I asked him if he remembered when we talked about privilege. I asked him if he remembered when we talked about how some people are treated unfairly because of gender or race or sexual orientation. He said he did. I told him that in this case he will always be assumed to be the trouble-maker, because he is a boy. It is not fair, but he should know.
The people who benefit the most from rape culture are rapists. Please, when we talk about this subject let’s not lump all men and all boys in with them.